- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2011

THE POISON TREE
By Erin Kelly
Viking, $26.95 322 pages

THE INSANE TRAIN
By Sheldon Russell
Minotaur, $25.99 320 pages

The psychological spell that can be cast by a combination of charm and evil is personified in Erin Kelly’s “The Poison Tree” by the character Biba Capel, who is reminiscent of the wicked fairy who spun into life in the dark woods.

Ms. Kelly might have titled her work the ballad of Biba, because that is how it reads. She has captured the essence of a dangerous domination in this intriguing and well-written mystery about the strange friendship between Karen Clarke, whose intelligence is at war with her feelings of social inadequacy, and Biba, a creature who not only enchants her but almost consumes her. Biba is cold, callous and self-obsessed to the point that she casually lets her brother go to jail for two murders that she committed.

The story begins and ends with the words “I have the strength of a woman who has everything to lose.”

During the 321 pages in between, Karen recounts rather than explains how she came to be in such a plight. Her preoccupation throughout is Biba, for whom she has an affection that is more psychological than sexual and consequently far more powerful. Karen is an intelligent and perceptive woman, yet in many respects, she is Biba’s marionette. She is in love with Biba’s enigmatic brother, Rex, and envisages herself as part of the strange Capel family, which is a dark, dysfunctional tangle of suicide and deception. Yet Karen remains mesmerized by the alluring magic of Biba, who uses her power over everyone around her to get what she wants.

There is perhaps no one more blatantly selfish than Biba, yet all Karen can see is how bewitching she is. Karen remains in her bizarre role as caretaker even when Biba picks up a gun and kills, then stands by while Rex is indicted and jailed. The extent of Biba’s emotional influence is demonstrated by the fact that Karen doesn’t try to exonerate Rex despite knowing the truth.

Even giving birth to a child she didn’t want doesn’t derail Biba. Almost in a gesture of contempt, she turns over the baby girl to Karen, who saved the baby’s life when her mother considered dropping her over a balcony as if to dispose of something unnecessary. After Biba’s disappearance, Karen accepts the role of mother to little Alice, and when Rex is released from prison, Karen allows him to believe Alice is the offspring of their affair. They try to settle into a normal life, but the darkness of the past still swirls around them and there is no doubt in the reader’s mind that the irresistible Biba will be back. Yet there is doubt about what Karen will do when she is faced with a terrible choice, and that is the dramatic and even surprising conclusion of Ms. Kelly’s fascinating book.

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A train filled with dangerously insane passengers tests even a cultivated taste for the macabre, and that is what Sheldon Russell is appealing to in this weird mixture of dark humor and horror.

In “The Insane Train,” he has a most engaging character in Hook Runyon, a “yard dog” or railroad security agent, who finds himself coping with a nightmare of death and lunatics at large. The book gets off to a grim and fiery start when dozens of children are burned to death in a fire that consumes the Baldwin Insane Asylum in California.

The survivors must be transported across the state in a train that has seen better days, and Runyon has to hire a group of hobos in his effort to get the train moving, let alone heading to its destination. To complicate a situation already off the tracks, the passengers on the train are mentally unbalanced men and women who “suffer from a range of psychotic disorders so severe that traditional therapy is ineffectual.”

Like Robert Smith, a “sensual sadist” capable of watching a victim choke on his own blood. Or Van Diefendorf, who is a pyromaniac. Or the man in Room 5, who sawed open his wrist with a can.

The most chilling warning to Hook that comes from the asylum doctor is that their being insane does not mean the inmates are dull-witted. To assume that with any of them, she advises, “could be the biggest mistake of your life.”

It requires little imagination to conjure up the terror of such a train and what happens on it. Hook and his dog Mixer, who “loved fighting and eating, in that order” have a wild ride, alleviated only by Andrea, a comely and competent nurse of the deranged who likes both of them.

The book is a lively read, but it is very difficult to chuckle over the behavior of those in the grip of insanity made more dangerous by homicidal tendencies. The craziness on the train is real and tragic, and it doesn’t mix with barroom humor.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers.

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